Unzipped (1995): Keeve’s Documentary about Fashion Designer Mizrahi

Sundance Film Fest, Jan 24, 1995–Douglas Keeve’s documentary, Unzipped, is everything that Robert Altman’s Ready to Wear should have been: An insider’s view of the fashion world that is hip, light, authentic, revelatory and always amusing.

Unzipped poster.jpg

Focusing on the New York City designer, Isaac Mizrahi, this celebratory, rather uncritical film should be embraced by hip, young, sophisticated viewers who will learn quite a bit about the chaos and exhilaration of preparing a fashion show.

Though centering on a major figure of the international fashion world, Unzipped is a peculiar film, for it’s neither a chronicle of Mizrahi’s career and life nor a critical account of one of our society’s most glamorous institutions. Instead, extremely well-made docu presents a selective view of Mizrahi by following him, phase by phase, as he prepares his l994 N.Y. Fall Fashion Show.

Even so, Unzipped offers a fascinating portrait of a most creative artist as he goes about the long, often exciting but sometime also tedious and frustrating, process of orchestrating an exhibition, which, in detail and hard work, is not unlike producing a Broadway show.

Mizrahi’s eccentric, uniquely American personality is revealed through interviews with some of his staff members, but mostly through his amusing narration, which frames the film and gives it its unique texture.

The film begins with Mizrahi’s anxiety about the critical reception to his new line. “It’s just the worst day,” he says about the day after the show, “it’s too painful.” Yet in a characteristic humor, he immediately follows it with: “I hate mediocre things said about me….just ignore me if you don’t like it.”

The most entertaining segments deal with Mizrahi’s genius, demystifying the sources of his inspiration, which happen to be American pop culture, specifically Hollywood and its glamorous stars. Alert, energetic, and quick-witted, the artist relates his obsession with the silent pic Nanook of the North, which stimulated him to design a whole Eskimo look.

Mizrahi has obviously spent a lot of time in movie houses and in front of his tube, for he can impersonate memorable lines from Bette Davis’ pictures (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane) and visually deconstruct some preposterously unrealistic scenes, like Loretta Young’s perfect makeup while rescued from a frozen tundra in Call of the Wild. The fun is based on seeing Mizrahi’s hilarious mimicry, immediately followed by clips from the movies themselves.

The observations Mizrahi makes about his work are quite illuminating, as the distinction he draws between creating a look (which he loves) and creating a show, a nerve-wrecking, high-pressured process that relies on an intricate coordination of many hands.

While docu lacks a clear discernible structure, title cards, often cute ones, divide the film, which more or less observes chronologically all the steps involved from initial designing to ordering fabric to cutting, tailoring, modeling etc. Like a good suspense thriller, the movie builds toward a climax, the big show, which is most excitingly recorded.

In contrast, some touching but always whimsical moments are provided in Mizrahi’s personal encounters with his proud Jewish mom, an instrumental figure in his childhood who also served as an inspiration. There’s also a wonderful moment, when Mizrahi is shown a trade magazine that features noted designer Gaultier’s new line, “Eskimo Chic,” on its cover. Shocked by the coincidental similarity of their ideas, he throws the magazine away, accusing his staff of “evil pleasure” in doing this to him.

Surprisingly, excepting Mizrahi’s mother, business associate Nina Santisi, and some fashion editors, docu doesn’t contain interviews with his models, collaborators, and competitors. Also missing is a broader context, which would have helped appraise how innovative and successful Mizrahi is in the global fashion marketplace. Unzipped captures marvelously the “spirit” of Mizrahi as a brilliant designer consumed with passion for his work, but there is no discussion at all of his more personal lifestyle, circle of friends.

A renowned fashion photographer, Keeve, who here makes an impressive debut, shows his love for the fashion world without judging or glamorizing it. Tech credits are all peachy, but special kudos go to lenser Kuras (Swoon), who accomplishes some remarkable technical feats, specifically in the climactic big show. Kuras’ unblinking, mobile camera restlessly records the event front stage, backstage and the wings, showing with great panache new sights of the fashion world.

Directed by Douglas Keeve
Music by Mark Ambrosino
Cinematography: Ellen Kuras, Robert Leacock

Edited by Paula Heredia, Alan Oxman

Distributed by Miramax

Release date: August 11, 1995

Running time: 73 minutes